Computers track Wolf sturgeon

Correspondent

Oshkosh, Wis. Imagine a computer on a bridge that tracks the
movement of fish wearing sonic tags.

Welcome to the high-tech world of Wisconsin’s lake sturgeon
management program. That’s just one of the projects the state DNR
and Sturgeon for Tomorrow are conducting.

Sonic tags will be placed on about 50 adult female sturgeon in
the Wolf River this spring, according to Ron Bruch, a DNR sturgeon
biologist based in Oshkosh. Bruch outlined the program March 31 to
more than 100 people who attended a meeting in Oshkosh to review
Lake Winnebago’s 2004 sturgeon spearing season, which lasted only
two days, Feb. 14-15. A similar meeting two days earlier in
Taycheedah drew more than 150 sturgeon enthusiasts.

Bruch said the computers that track sturgeon movement will be
placed on bridges in Oshkosh, Winneconne, and Omro and should give
the DNR plenty of information about the prehistoric fish that leave
Lake Winnebago each spring to spawn in the Wolf and Embarrass
rivers as far north as Shawano.

“It will tell us exactly how many of those fish don’t come back
(to Winnebago),” he said.

Other projects include rehabilitating sturgeon spawning areas in
the Fox River downstream from Oshkosh. One site was recently
refurbished in downtown Princeton.

The sturgeon that spawn in the Fox River are a different
population of fish than those that move up the Wolf and Embarrass
each spring, according to Bruch.

“In 50 years, we’ve never had any Wolf (River) fish show up in
the Fox (River),” he said. “We’re also stocking 1,000 fish a year
to re-establish that population, but nobody knows where they
go.”

DNR officials scheduled the Taycheedah and Oshkosh meetings to
review the results of the 2004 spearing season, which turned out to
be the shortest on record. The 12-hour-long season ended Feb. 15
after 1,854 sturgeon were harvested. Most of those fish 1,303 were
speared Saturday, Feb. 14.

“This is a pretty good harvest when you look back over the last
60 years,” Bruch said. “It’s probably in the top 10.”

An average of more than 1,500 sturgeon have been speared each
year in Winnebago and lakes Butte des Morts, Winneconne, and Poygan
since 1990.

That compares to the annual average of 1,313 fish taken from
1950-54, according to Bruch.

“There were some serious harvests during the 1950s,” he said.
“The fishery just exploded at that time, but the harvest rates
weren’t all that great during the 1960s and 1970s. We had cloudy
water and more algae blooms, and there was a lot of runoff that
entered the lake. It probably protected the fish.”

The DNR increased the size limit from 40 inches to 45 inches in
1974. Harvest rates began to climb again in the 1990s after
Winnebago’s water became more clear.

“With clear water, you’re going to see fish and you’re going to
spear fish,” Bruch said.

Twenty sturgeon tipped the scales at more than 100 pounds this
year. The biggest sturgeon was speared by Redgranite resident David
Piechowski a 188-pound, 791/2-inch female speared Feb. 14. It was
the biggest sturgeon taken from Winnebago since Elroy Schroeder, of
Appleton, speared a 180-pound, 79-inch fish in 1953.

“That 188-pound fish was not a fluke this year,” Bruch said.
“This was a big fish, but we saw bigger fish last year during the
spawning run. We caught one, but we probably saw at least a dozen
that we couldn’t catch. This is a result of our hard work to bring
down the harvest of females.”

The short season left many people asking whether this year’s
harvest, which mostly came from the southern one-sixth of the lake,
would have a negative impact on the population and future spearing
seasons.

Bruch said the DNR has received several different suggestions
from spearers since the season ended.

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